Monday, 16 April 2012

REVIEWS FOR YAMADA, THE ISLAND PRESIDENT AND 1911

For the last couple of months, I have been helping out with writing articles and reviews for another website DOWN WITH FILM, and so far I've had the privilege of reviewing three films for them. They are all different and not exactly part of the mainstream circle with films but they are still worth checking out.

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YAMADA: THE SAMURAI OF AYOTHAYA (2010)
2 1/2 STARS

Imagine watching The Last Samurai but with the leading character not being American but Japanese instead? That is the case with Nopporn Watin’s silly, blood-soaked epic  Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya which has about as many brutal, non-stop fight scenes which at times makes the TV series of Spartacus fade in comparison when it comes to pure blood and gore.  The film itself is made in celebration of the diplomatic relationship between Thai-Japanese culture  which is one of the more significant aspects of its narrative when looking at the state between the two nations during that period. However that historical factor is overshadowed by Watin’s desire to entertain his audiences with the constant use of over-the-top violence to influence its story with this film being an example of action speaking louder than words in this predictable effort.

As peace is being orchestrated between Japan and ancient Thailand, samurai warrior Yamada (Seigi Ozeki) discovers that there is a plot to assassinate the King of Ayothaya but unaware that his own people involved, Yamada is betrayed and left for dead. However his rescued by a group of Japanese Samurai who bring him back to their village. As he is nursed back to health, Yamada finds companionship and brotherhood in a camp dedicated to training The King’s future bodyguards. Determined to gain revenge on his enemies, he decides to combine his Samurai skills with an ancient Thai art to become a bodyguard to The King and restore order to the Ayothaya legacy.

When Ong-Bak was released back in 2005, it suggested that a new wave of martial-art films would enhance the films of Thailand and here some of the cliches are in noticeable from the use of choreographed fight scenes to the cultural misc-en-scene varying from paddling boats to masked dances though it is still a nice film to look at. Evidently the story flows quick, with the basic narrative almost the same as The Last Samurai when it comes to our hero being wounded, rescued by his ‘enemies’, learning their traditions and eventually fighting against his own. Half-way in and people will know already that our hero will succeed but it will cost him. Hollywood is just as influential to foreign cinema as it is the other way round. Even the light-hearted music proves a distraction for many scenes in the film, even during the training scenes where you can’t help but feel you’re watching an action film with dubbed rom-com music. A technical error on the director’s part. Leading actor Oseki does a satisfactory job in his role as Yamada conveying dismay over his people’s betrayal but being able to put it aside when working on his fighting skills and certainly enjoys his confrontational scenes. Aside from Kham (Thanawut Ketsaro sporting a very similar mustache to Tom Hardy in Bronson) who has the more physically challenging fight scenes, the other cast members are reduced to particularly the lovely looking Kanokkorn Jaichuen (who was Miss World Thailand in 2007) who is vastly underwritten as another female character in an action film reduced to the background.

But what many audiences crave for the most with Asian cinema is the action, and here there is plenty of it to admire. Training sequences with the warriors all practicing while sporting their holy tattoos and long, wavy hair. Check. Awesome fight moves. Check. Severed body parts. Check. CGI blood. Check. The ancient form of martial art is presented with such viciousness from the Gladiator-style encounters in the arena at the beginning of the film to the actual confrontation scene where Yamada is attacked. But the big one involves a non-stop sequence where Yam and Kham tackle an army of warriors in a jungle and for the next five minutes, we see almost every fight move in film appear here. It gets tiring after a while and even the shots of swords going into bodies looks fake possibly due to making quick edits. But that doesn’t matter to action fans who will love every second of it.

VERDICT: Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothara tries too hard to pleasure it audiences with its constant kick-ass sequences overshadowing the weak-story and while it’s visually beautiful to look at, it proves nothing more than being just another Asian popcorn flick.

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 THE ISLAND PRESIDENT (2011) - 3 1/2 STARS

While watching this well-crafted documentary, I felt motivated by ‘Island President’ Mohamed Nasheed’s passion to tell the world about the dangers of carbon dioxide and what it was doing to the 2000 islands of his nation, the Maldives. But when looking up on the aftermath of the film’s events, I was left somewhat disappointed that Nasheed had actually resigned as President only a few weeks ago due to his country’s conflict between the law enforces. Anti-climatic is one word to describe the film’s aim to make us all fear the dangers of global warming yet knowing that the aftermath has proved as frustrating for us as it was for Nasheed during the film.

At the beginning of the Island President’s journey, the audience are treated to a history lesson of how the clustered islands of the Maldives endured a mixed 30 year period under leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom until former prisoner turned political activist Nasheed succeeded in winning the votes to become the new leader of the islands. However his tenure would be tested by the uncontrollable erosion affecting the islands and leading to some of them being in danger of being submerged under water. The film documents his appeal to the rest of the world including the bigger nations of the USA and the United Kindgom, to try and support the Maldives and restrict the use of carbon dioxide in their countries otherwise they face the prospect of global-warming becoming a reality.

Aside from the disappointments of recent events, you can’t fault the hard work put into the project by Jon Shenk (though one only has to feel sorry for him and Nasheed with how everything has turned out). Within the first few minutes, the audience are taken on a breathtaking tour of the Maldives with the radiant Indian ocean simply glorious to look at, but even more spectacular is the long-shot view of the islands. It makes you forget you’re actually watching an environment documentary. From then on, it’s all about the struggles that Nasheed went through in his rise to politics from his horrific time in prison to settling into his new role as President. As he becomes dismayed over the dangers of carbon-dioxide, we know that this is a man who refuses to let his country be swept aside in favour of the bigger nations as he travels to London, New York and India to seek their help but along the way there is support but also frustrating moments for him. Unlike most politicians, Nasheed is presented as witty and patient especially during one scene where he makes a broadcast to the nation by sitting on a table knee-deep in water. When you think of all the underdog characters in film, here you get a modern day one, who represents an unknown nation which is dying from the rise of natural disaster but wants to go toe-to-toe with the big boys. That all comes from the key moment which becomes a make-or-break factor towards the end when Nasheed delivers his speech about the Maldives’s legacy to the Copenhagen Political Party attended by the likes of Barack Obama and Gordon Brown. The final result isn’t entirely satisfying but it gives the world a bit of hope about changing the planet.

VERDICT: Despite the awkwardness of recent events, this film proves just as significant as Al Gore’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, another which put a blunt point across about the dangers of global warming. This particular film mixes the beauty of its imagery with the grim threat that the environment could bring to the Maldives and ends up being a worthwhile documentary.

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1911: REVOLUTION (2011) - 3 STARS

There are two landmark events to consider when you think about this film. Firstly it was made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1911 revolution of China and seen as one of the most important times of the country’s history. Secondly it also marks the 100th film in which leading actor Jackie Chan has starred in during his illustrious 35 year career including kung-fu flicks and Hollywood blockbusters. Here though, he marks the occasion by co-directing it and taking top billing yet chooses not to delve into his usual fun, eccentric roles and instead chooses to explore the film’s focus on China’s historical legacy whilst playing a more calm and withdrawn character. But despite being enthralling to look at with its focus on the past and its vicious battle sequences, the inclusion of too many characters and plot-lines cramped into a 99 minute production takes away the epic approach it was trying to show.

Building up to the pinnacle year the film’s title depicts, it focuses on an uprising originally led by determined Huang Xing (Jackie Chan) who watches on as his group of young rebels are massacred in an early attack. It is all part of the beginning of the Xinhai revolution which has been trying to bring down the corrupt Qing government since they took power during the Opium War which occurred over 2000 years earlier leading to the country falling into decay for its people. However in the west, potential presidential leader Sun Yat-Sen (Winston Chao) tries to gain help from authoritative people of other countries to help back his fight against the Qing but fails before deciding to return to his native China to bring the fight to the enemy. Various battles take place between the rebels and the Qing armies with neither willing to back down yet Sun rallies on with his political aspirations unaware that the Empress of China (Joan Chen) is also wanting the carnage to end.

As far as historical films go, this intriguing yet clunky effort by Chan in his directing duties manages to explore the context of China’s struggles to effective detail. Despite its short running time which doesn’t warrant its epic feel, the film manages to squeeze in significant details of the Revolution and helping us understand by what is going on by placing paragraphs during scenes to explain what’s going on and why these moments are crucial in the story. But at the same time, it does cause problems too as I’ll explain later. Though the project is a landmark moment for his entertaining career, his top billing here sees his General Huang Xing  only playing second fiddle to the more focused Sun Yat-Sen character portrayed by Chao who is lesser known than Chan but manages to take centre stage and give a vibrant and committed performance. Ironically though he has played the iconic Sun in other projects, a situation similar to Michael Sheen’s many performances as Tony Blair in his own work. As for Chan himself, he backs away from his usual charismatic approach and his over-the-top stunt work to play a more serious and emotionally-torn character though one scene half-way in brings back his physical skills when Huang has to overcome three bad guys; it’s classic Chan but that’s all you get on the fist front here. As for the production value, Chan is able to capture the setting of the period which 1911 focuses on particularly the costumes and art direction but it is the thunderous and riveting action scenes which capture the essence of war almost as well as Spielberg did with his war epic Saving Private Ryan ranging from the soldier’s emotional facial expressions to the booming explosions and gun-fire.

But despite Chan’s best efforts of trying to mark the landmark event’s occasion with a harrowing look at war and the build-up to the politics, 1911 is let down by its attempts to cramp too many characters and situations into a small half and a hour feature film which is probably why the editing seems sloppy thus ruining the film’s flow between scenes. Although it was crucial to have moments in the film explained via paragraphs in the middle of the screen, it was hard to read them while trying to keep an eye also on what characters were saying during those scenes. This was also obvious with the introduction of at least 30-40 characters with official names stating who they were but most of those people would appear briefly then never be seen again amidst the film’s pace. Had this been a lengthy two and a half/three hour epic, then the usage of all these characters would have been more acceptable as it could have given more significance as to why they appear and perhaps give them more screen-time. Finally Chan does seem to rely on Hollywood themes a bit too much at one point when we see the Western characters a couple of times e.g. important British/American delegates who come across as silly stereotypes with stuffy accents and not lacking any seriousness to what’s at stake for China’s welfare. There had to be some Western involvement in this project somewhere!

VERDICT: 1911 does a commendable job of exploring China’s historical background with Jackie Chan working hard to present the film’s war theme while giving an-against type performance. But its disjointed narrative and messy editing brings it down a notch though Chan will just be glad to have marked his century of films in style.

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